This week the MBTA announced the South Coast Rail project will cost $3.4 billion - a more than 50 percent increase over the original $2.23 billion estimate. The original completion date of 2022 extends to 2028. If past is prologue, the cost estimate will continue to rise. Governor Charlie Baker should cancel this project and refocus economic development funding directly in Gateway Cities.
The South Coast Rail project has been under evaluation since the 1980s. It would restore old rail beds of the former Old Colony rail line to provide commuter rail service from New Bedford and Fall River to Boston.
The MBTA announcement points out several issues that should concern taxpayers in Massachusetts – MBTA incompetence, over regulation, and a cultural and economic mindset more fit to the 1900s than the 21st Century.
The inability of the MBTA to manage its capital expansion projects is reflected not only in this project, but the Green Line extension that is also projected to cost an additional $1 billion. Its inability to manage its capital planning with any accuracy is only amplified by its incompetence in operations (e.g. the winter of 2015 and deferred maintenance) and its lack of transparency in its finances. Governor Baker and others should continue to scrutinize the MBTA in every area of its activities to force reform.
The reported reason for the increase and extension is wetland permitting. This raises the issue of excessive regulation. The South Coast Rail project will be built on existing rail beds, yet permitting can extend the project from six years to twelve. The three bridges crossing the Cape Cod Canal were built in 18 months at a cost of $4.5 million. Today, replacing one bridge may require 20 years of study and permitting and consume half the cost of construction. Progress is paralyzed by excessive regulation that should be addressed aggressively by the Baker Administration.
The mindset that advances a project like South Coast Rail is wrongheaded. In 1858 Oliver Wendell Holmes coined the phrase “The Hub” by referring to the Massachusetts State House as "The Hub of the Solar System.” The moniker now refers more broadly to the entire city. It is time to reassess the title and place greater economic development emphasis on the Gateway Cities of Massachusetts.
The focus of economic development in Massachusetts for the past three and a half decades was largely on Boston. The cities and towns on the spokes attached to “The Hub” withered. The 19th century economic construct that made Boston “The Hub” has morphed into a model in which the only purpose for the outlying cities is to feed the megalopolis.
Boston no longer relates to the many outlying cities and towns that formed the spokes and rim of a bygone era. A hub is part of a wheel that has spokes and strong rim connections. Spokes remain today only to ferry people to and from Boston at enormous cost. The rim is gone. South Coast Rail continues the 19th century model. It reflects an erroneous mindset that says economic success in the gateways is dependent on Boston.
Governor Baker should cancel this project and divert the funds to direct investment in Gateway Cities rather than ferrying a few thousand more commuters to the megalopolis via three or four hours of daily commuting. Jamming more people onto highways and into trains to get to Boston is harmful to humans and the environment, and in the modern day is unnecessary.
The focus of state economic development should shift from the “commuter” mindset to supporting infrastructure and policies that permit and encourage people to live where they work.